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From the turn of the century until the 1960s, poor people with civil and criminal legal problems generally got help at Legal Aid Society offices staffed by volunteers from law firms. Edward Sparer had a different vision – one of legal services for the poor, governed by the people served, and devoted to challenging the institutional structures that create and maintain poverty. Sparer pioneered the concept of neighborhood law offices in low-income communities and founded the first such program, Mobilization for Youth Legal Services, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1963. Two years later, Sparer’s vision went national, when Congress adopted his ideas and funded a nationwide network of community-controlled legal service programs for the poor that continues to this day. It is for good reason that Sparer is known as the father of poverty law.

Sparer had worked early in his career as an organizer in the South for vice president Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign in the 1940s and later as a labor lawyer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in the 1950s. The comprehensive system of legal services he envisioned combined the best features of three models. Organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Educational Fund, Inc., and the American Civil Liberties Union used legal skills strategically to challenge and transform the law. Wall Street lawyers, meanwhile, provided individual clients with planning advice far beyond defensive damage control. And labor and civil rights lawyers used the law to promote organization and empowerment. Sparer’s focus was to provide services to individual clients, rather than simply to change the shape of the legal rules.After Congress endorsed his archetype by funding the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1964 (a precursor to the creation of the Legal Services Corporation in 1974), Sparer saw that community legal services lawyers needed astute help to develop solutions to common problems. To fill the void, he founded the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law in 1965. The public interest organization became the model for other specialized centers to support legal service practitioners working in neighborhood clinics across the country.

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